By Owei Lakemfa
FOUR foreigners identified as diplomats leaving Botswana on November 11, 2021 tested positive to what turned out to be a new variant of COVID-19 which has now come to be identified as Omicron. This variant was unknown to science.
However, South African doctors led by Angelique Coetzee by November 24, 2021 correctly categorised the new variant, and with that, the world became aware of the new COVID-19 mutation.
It is common sense that the discovery of a virus or its variant in a place or country does not mean it originated from the place. For instance, that same November 11 the foreigners in Botswana tested positive to Omicron, a Belgian lady returned home from a visit to Egypt via Turkey and tested positive to what the South African doctors later identified as the Omicron variant. By November 30, 2021, there were nine reported cases in Scotland and none of the victims had travelled out or had overseas connection. This simply meant that there was community transmission of the disease.
But the basic fact that the Omicron variant was already travelling round the world before its discovery by the South Africans, was lost on some European countries. Their immediate reaction was to baptise the Omicron as a ‘South African variant’ and while it was spreading in various European countries, they decided to isolate South Africa and its neigbours by placing a travel ban on their citizens. This they later extended to countries in other parts of the continent.
Many Western countries did not seek to establish the identities of the foreigners in Botswana that bore the variant as to establish the origins and put in place strategies to contain it. They were not interested in understanding the fact that even if doctors from South Africa discovered Omicron, it did not make it an African variant for which the continent should be slapped with travel bans.
But that precisely is what happened. For example, within 14 days of the Omicron detection, Canada banned seven Southern African countries, and a day later, added Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt. Its Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos declared on November 30: “Canadian citizens and permanent residents that have been in any of these ten countries over the last 14 days will need to receive a negative PCR test before being allowed to travel to Canada. Upon arriving in Canada, they will face more testing and quarantine measures. These new measures also apply to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, even those that are fully vaccinated.”
Such knee-jerk reactions and actions by developed countries and even some underdeveloped countries like Saudi Arabia against Africa, forced South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to embark on a tour of four West African countries to explain issues, build consensus and organise a united fight back.
In Dakar, Senegal, he told the rich countries to fight the virus not poor countries. The former labour leader said: “When South African scientists discovered… Omicron, the new variant, they immediately took on the responsibility of informing the world… that a new variant has come through. And what is the result?
The Northern countries imposed a ban to punish the excellence that comes from Africa…They basically said, ‘we will not allow you to travel around’, but lo and behold, Omicron is spreading all over the world.”
Senegalese President, Macky Sall told the rich countries that what the war against the corona virus pandemic requires is unity of the human race, not division: “We must continue to work together in solidarity. This pandemic, which is affecting all our countries, must bring us together on the side of solidarity in our response instead of adding a new divide between rich and poor countries.”
President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria after meeting Ramaphosa emphasised that: “Despite the scare generated by the new COVID-19 variant, we have been able to hold successful meetings, while observing strict COVID-19 protocols, through fraternal cooperation and understanding.”
Both countries used the occasion to sign Memoranda of Understanding in areas like Youth Development, Women and Child Empowerment as well as reviewing existing ones in areas, including “military cooperation, power, cooperation in the field of geology, mining, and mineral processing, oil and gas”.
Although Ramaphosa subjected himself to the COVID-19 test in each country he visited and tested negative, unfortunately the test he did on his return home turned out positive and he had to self-isolate. There may be those who gloat that after embarking on a campaign against Omicron, he turned out positive.
I do not think this is either scientific or logical as many world leaders had tested positive before him. These include then United States President Donald Trump and wife, Melania; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Presidents Alex Lukashenko of Belarus and Emmanuel Macron of France.
Despite all the panic in Europe and Canada over Omicron, research so far by the South Africans show that it is milder than previous variants of COVID-19 like the Delta. Leading American scientist, Anthony Fauci, who is also President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, said early indications suggested Omicron is not worse than previous variants and that it was possibly milder: “There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe, because when you look at some of the cohorts that are being followed in South Africa, the ratio between the number of infections and the number of hospitalisations seems to be less than with Delta.”
In one of the earliest attacks against Africa, the United Kingdom, UK, had placed an immediate ban on six Southern African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and added Nigeria in West Africa. It claimed this was to prevent the importation of Omicron into the country.
In reaction to these blind attacks, Nigeria announced that it will restrict airlines coming from Canada, the UK and Saudi Arabia and place these countries on a red watch-list. Perhaps realising the lack of scientific basis in its reaction to Omicron and the threat of some of the banned countries to retaliate, the UK within a few days, changed course and replaced its so-called red-list with testing for the fully vaccinated.
I ascribe the unscientific and punitive reaction of some of these developed countries against Africa on the Omicron case, to the ideology of the goat. The first reaction of the goat to any new thing it does not understand, is panic. This it follows with self-defence and self-preservation. It then digs in and usually remains stubborn even in the face of new facts unless it is pushed to change its position.
A more conscious, serious, visionary and conscientious Africa Union is required to defend the continent against predatory attacks. Meanwhile, I wish our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, speedy recovery.